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Is Schism Coming?

Jimmy Akin

Audio only:

Even Pope Francis is talking about schism, so is the unity of the Church in danger? Our senior apologist tackles the meaning of “schism” and assesses the risks.


Cy Kellett: Hello, and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. Delighted to have you with us, thanks so much for joining us. Schism has been in the news recently, so we have our good friend Jimmy Akin here with us. Jimmy is senior apologist here at Catholic Answers, and the author of many things, but I’m going to point in particular to this one, Teaching With Authority: How to Cut Through Doctrinal Confusion and Understand What the Church Really Says, because that’s one that may deal most closely with this. You can also get Jimmy’s recent book, The Bible is a Catholic Book. Hello, Jimmy Akin.

Jimmy Akin: Howdy, Cyril Kellett.

Cy Kellett: Thanks for being here.

Jimmy Akin: Oh, no problem.

Cy Kellett: First of all, I think the thing that most people will want to know, is it schism or schism?

Jimmy Akin: It is pronounced both ways. It’s a tomato, tomato thing.

Cy Kellett: Tomato.

Jimmy Akin: Or tomato.

Cy Kellett: Okay. All right. Fair enough.

Jimmy Akin: Let’s call this whole thing off.

Cy Kellett: No, you’re committed.

Jimmy Akin: Oh, okay.

Cy Kellett: Jason Horowitz, a reporter for the New York Times, was on the airplane with Pope Francis, which, if you’re a reporter, that’s the place to be, because he’s going to say interesting stuff. They’re coming back from the Pope’s recent and apparently really impressive, wonderful trip to Africa. Horowitz asked him kind of a two-part question.

Cy Kellett: The first part is, “Evidently there are strong criticisms and there are even some Cardinals and bishops, TV Catholics, American websites, many criticisms, even some close allies have spoken of a plot against you, some of your allies in the Italian Curia. Is there something these critics don’t understand about your pontificate, or is there something that you have learned from the criticisms coming from the United States?” Okay, so that’s all question one. I give you that because I think you need it to understand the Pope’s answer. “Another thing, are you afraid of schism in the American church? If yes, is there something you could do, dialogue to help avoid it?”

Cy Kellett: The Pope’s answer begins this way, which I thought was a delightful way to answer it. “First of all, criticisms always help, always. When one receives a criticism, immediately we should make a self-critique and say this: ‘To me, it is true or it is not true? Until what point?’ Of criticisms, I always see the advantages. Sometimes you get angry, but the advantages are there.”

Cy Kellett: That’s really an address to the first question. I put it there for you in part, I just want to be clear, because sometimes, Francis, these kind of pacific things that he says are not quoted, and so I think it’s fair to give him his due. Also, he seems to be making a clear point that, “Look, criticism is not a problem. Schism is a totally different thing, but I’m okay with criticism.”

Cy Kellett: Okay. Then, he goes on and on about criticism, being similarly pacific, although he does make a critique of those who criticize like sticking a knife in, rather than to your face and want to have a conversation about it. Then he says, and I have lost-

Jimmy Akin: And that is something that really can only apply to people who are fairly in the Pope’s own closed circles, because an ordinary person like you or me, we have no chance of having a dialogue with the Pope. That’s one in a blue moon. A million to one or a billion to one, he’s going to call you on the phone and have a dialogue. When he’s talking about people who stick the knife in his back, or whatever, that has to be, he’s thinking of people who are polite to him, to his face, but then are less polite behind his back.

Cy Kellett: But he also talks about writing articles and the media thing and the internet stuff. He says, “There’s certain people who just want to criticize but don’t want to engage in back-and-forth.” He seems particularly to be saying, “Don’t do that.”

Jimmy Akin: Yeah, and obviously there is a human tendency at times for people to just want to criticize and vent, and not really have it be part of a constructive experience. That’s certainly something that has to be guarded against, because people of all stripes can have that tendency, where they’re just frustrated with something, they just want to vent their frustrations, but they’re not looking to turn it into something positive.

Cy Kellett: I wanted to give you the part where he got to schism, though, but I lost my place, but essentially the Pope says, he says two things. I’ll give you the essentials that I recall, since I don’t have the direct quote. First thing he says is, “Schism in the history of the Church tends to be an elite thing where there is a group of people, for ideological reasons, who reject what the great body of the Church accepts or lives every day.” I wonder what you make of that as a historical kind of thing. Is schism of its nature an elitist thing?

Jimmy Akin: I don’t tend to like to psychologize people, because you have to look at a particular case and say, “What’s going on here?” Having an elitist attitude is not the definition of schism. Are there people who are schismatic who have an elitist attitude? Sure, but that’s always a matter of degree. Obviously everybody thinks they’re right. If they didn’t think they were right about whatever point it is, then they wouldn’t be holding the views they do. It’s easy to look at people who have some differences with you and say, “Oh, they think they’re better,” just because they think they’re right.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, I see.

Jimmy Akin: I tend to not want to look at the world through that lens.

Cy Kellett: Okay, so then the Pope went on, and this is the “pull quote” that everybody pulled out, where he said he’s not afraid of schism. He prays that there is no schism, but he is not afraid of schism. What do you make of that?

Jimmy Akin: Well, it could be construed in different ways. Obviously it’s good that he prays that there’s no schism. On the other hand, saying he’s not afraid of a schism is, on the one hand, a show of strength, but on the other hand I personally find a little concerning, because one of the things that recent popes have really tried to do is avoid schisms and to repair them when they exist. I’m not saying he’s indicating he’s unconcerned about schism. In fact, the fact he says he prays that there’s not going to be a schism is itself good, but I think there is such a thing for a pontiff or for other bishops as a healthy fear of schism and, “What do I need to do to try to avoid this and head it off?” We don’t want ecclesiastical leaders being cavalierly unconcerned with such things. I’m not saying he is. I’m just saying, based on the statement as reported in the press, you could read it in different ways.

Cy Kellett: So the popes have generally avoided a “take it or leave it” approach. Like, “Here’s the Catholic faith. If you want to have schism, go ahead and schism,” rather they try to …

Jimmy Akin: Dialogue, reconcile, all that stuff, yeah.

Cy Kellett: All those kinds of things. We’ve seen very recent examples of that. All right, I have this wonderful book here called Teaching With Authority. It’s got a glossary in the back.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah, how about that?

Cy Kellett: It’s practically worth it just for the glossary, because so many of these words we throw around, and we don’t actually get to what they really mean. “Schism,” you define this way, “The refusal of submission to the Supreme pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”

Jimmy Akin: Right, and that’s not me defining it. That’s the Code of Canon Law, Canon 751.

Cy Kellett: Okay, so you have to refuse to submit in order to be in schism.

Jimmy Akin: Refuse to submit to the Pope, yes.

Cy Kellett: Okay. Can you give me an example of…when has this actually happened?

Jimmy Akin: Well, in the past, there have been any number of occasions where people have said, “Okay, we’re no longer in communion with you. We either deny that you have special authority as Pope,” in the age before that was clear as part of doctrine, or even afterwards where they would say, “We’re not in community with you anymore, so obviously we’re not submitting to you anymore.” Those would be the typical kinds of schisms historically.

Jimmy Akin: More recently, in the case of the most recent notable schisms, it was the one involving the Society of Saint Pius X. John Paul II, after this code was promulgated, so it was under this very canon that he ruled that they had committed an act of schism … It’s kind of a different example. It’s different than the historical ones, because the members of the Society of Saint Pius X, who by my reading are no longer in a state of schism, but at the time, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of the society, consecrated four bishops, not just without a papal mandate, but against papal instructions not to do so.

Jimmy Akin: John Paul II then released a motu proprio called Ecclesia Dei, in which he dealt with the ramifications of that act. What he said was that, by refusing to obey the Pope on a grave matter that pertained to the hierarchical structure of the Church itself, that that implied, in practice, a rejection of submission to the Roman pontiff, and thus was a schismatic act.

Cy Kellett: That’s kind of weird. You have people saying, “We do submit to that authority”-

Jimmy Akin: That’s what I was going to point out. You’d have them saying, “Oh no, we respect the Pope, we honor the Pope, we recognized his authority as the successor of Peter,” but the way this canon was interpreted by its legislator, John Paul II, merely a verbal submission to the pontiff is not enough. Even if you verbally submit to the Pope, if you do something of a grave nature that pertains to the structure of the Church itself, against the Pope’s orders, that implies a rejection in practice of his authority, and thus would constitute a sufficient level of schism to trigger this canon and the attendant canonical consequences, like excommunication.

Cy Kellett: It’s not really very easy to fall into schism, then.

Jimmy Akin: No.

Cy Kellett: Let’s say there’s a grave moral teaching that the Pope promulgates about, say it’s the death penalty or whatever, I just say that one because it’s recent, and a person refuses and says, “No, I don’t accept this particular act of the Pope or this teaching of the Pope.” Is that schismatic, or what exactly is that when you’re doing that?

Jimmy Akin: Well, okay. I cover this in detail in Teaching With Authority, but in the case of non-infallible teachings, which is where the death penalty one is, the Holy See recognizes that there may be situations where people find themselves unable to agree with a non-infallible teaching. It then has guidelines for, what do you do if you’re in that situation? You want to pray, you want to be open, you want to think carefully through the situation, you do not want to stir up public opposition to it. But it acknowledges that one can be in good conscience and still find oneself unable to accept a non-infallible teaching. In that case, it’s not going to be a schismatic act. It’s simply disagreement.

Jimmy Akin: If you then cross another line into stirring up public opposition to it, that at that point becomes dissent, but dissent from a non-infallible teaching does not of itself constitute a schismatic act. If it’s an infallible teaching, you might have an argument for schism, but you’d also have to look more carefully at it, because some, not all, some infallible teachings are also infallibly declared to be divinely revealed, which makes them dogmas. If you reject a dogma, that’s a different thing. That’s heresy, not schism.

Cy Kellett: Man. Okay. You might fall into heresy, then. Okay, so what about this one, because this is actually, I think, common. I have heard people say this today, that, “The government of the Church has been so corrupt,” and they’re referring to the sex abuse crisis and the various crises that go with that, “It’s been so corrupt, I’m out, forget it. I just don’t want anything to do with that.” Now, is that a schismatic act?

Jimmy Akin: Potentially. I’d have to know more about the dispositions of the person involved. If they say, “I’m out, I don’t want anything to do with this,” and they just mean, “I am not going to go to church, I’m not going to practice my faith, but I’m not leaving the Church, I’m not breaking communion with the Church, I’m still Catholic,” then that’s backsliding, but it’s not schism. It’s being an inactive Catholic. On the other hand, if someone says, “I no longer consider myself a Catholic, I may accept all its teachings, but I’m no longer going to consider myself Catholic,” that would be a personal act of schism.

Cy Kellett: Oh, okay.

Jimmy Akin: We want to take a moment to look back at another aspect of this definition that the Code of Canon law provides for schism. It can be one of two things. It can either be refusal of submission to the Roman pontiff, or refusal of communion with those who are in communion with the Pope. Either way, you cut yourself off from union with the Pope, either directly, saying, “I refuse to submit to him,” or by saying, “I refuse to be in the same Church as these other people who I don’t like, who are in communion with the Pope.”

Cy Kellett: Okay. Yeah, okay. It seems to me that there may be some who have made formal declarations of schism recently. I’m thinking of a priest who said he no longer believes in the priesthood and he won’t go to mass anymore, but he’s still Catholic, he says.

Jimmy Akin: I’d have to know more about these-

Cy Kellett: Okay, fair enough.

Jimmy Akin: Because if he says, “I no longer believe in the priesthood,” what does that mean? That could be heresy.

Cy Kellett: I gotcha. Okay. Well, it’s not good anyway. All right. Given the situation in the world today, it does seem there’s pronounced divisions everywhere. Those divisions also are within the Church. You can even see in the publications of the Church, you’ve got, this publication over here has this reputation and its readership, and they all say they’re Catholic.

Jimmy Akin: That’s just like the church of Corinth.

Cy Kellett: Really? Those Corinthians. Okay, but given-

Jimmy Akin: Yet, they gave us Corinthian leather.

Cy Kellett: Which is the richest kind.

Jimmy Akin: Actually, there’s no such thing. Corinthian leather is a marketing gimmick.

Cy Kellett: What?

Jimmy Akin: Yeah.

Cy Kellett: I really trusted him. I really trusted Mr., what’s his name? Roarke?

Jimmy Akin: “Khan!”

Cy Kellett: Khan, yeah. Okay, so Jimmy, I kind of want to gauge, then, if everyone’s talking about schism, and then the New York Times is asking the Pope directly, and the Pope is saying essentially, “I’m not afraid of it, I pray that it doesn’t happen,” what about you? Your sense of the current moment, are we ripe for schism?

Jimmy Akin: Okay, so let’s look at a couple of things in relation to that. The first one is, individual people can and do go into schism all the time. I mean, that’s in every age. You have these little one-person schisms where someone says, “I’m no longer a Catholic,” and whatnot. They do so with enough of the right canonical check-boxes ticked to actually commit a schism, but it’s just a one-person thing.

Jimmy Akin: The kind of thing you’re seeing in news reports, people speculating about, is not individual one-person schisms. They’re talking about some kind of organized schism, like the ones of history. The ones of history have historically been led by bishops, because if you don’t have a bishop as a member of your schisms, you have no way to perpetuate it down through history. You have no way to have an ongoing ordination of the priesthood, or ongoing sacramental life, and so forth like that. You can have movements that leave the Church and then reject bishops and so forth, but then they’re crossing the line. They’re no longer just schisms. They’ve gone into the area of heresy because they’ve denied dogmas. If you’re looking for something that is a true schism, not a heresy but just a schism, it’s going to need to have bishops leading it. In order to evaluate these modern speculations, could there be a schism in our own lifetime, let’s say-

Cy Kellett: Could I just ask, would the Church of England leaving communion with the Pope, would that have been a schism?

Jimmy Akin: It started as a schism.

Cy Kellett: Okay, just so I have some mental image of what … They still had bishops, they still had priests, all of that.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah. No, they later-  Doctrines and dogmas and so forth, and thus …

Cy Kellett: That’s what we’d be talking about.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah, yeah.

Cy Kellett: Like, say if someone said, “I’m going to start the Catholic Church of America,” and then-

Jimmy Akin: Yeah, or the Greek Orthodox, for example.

Cy Kellett: Okay, fair enough.

Jimmy Akin: When they separated. Now, today, the Second Vatican Council said that people in these communities that have been historically separated, it was generations ago, and so you can’t charge their descendants with the act of separation. They’re not classified canonically as heretics or schismatics today because they’re presumed to be in good faith, but at the time of the separation, it would have been a schismatic movement.

Cy Kellett: Okay, so then, you were going to relate that to today.

Jimmy Akin: In order to say, well, could there be a schism in our own lifetime, you’d need at least one bishop leading the thing. Otherwise, it’s just a group of individuals who’ve separated, but they’re not really organized into one of these classic schisms. The question then becomes, are there any bishops who are plausible candidates for leaving communion with the Pope? Well, there are a couple thousand bishops in the world, and I don’t know them all personally, but there can be lone individuals who do so, as in the case of Marcel Lefebvre, but I am unaware of anybody, and certainly I’m unaware of any sizable movement, that is likely to leave the Church in the near future.

Jimmy Akin: You mentioned before we started this broadcast that Ross Douthat of the New York Times had a column where he noted that some people use the idea of a schism somewhat differently, where some people, say people from a more conservative point of view, are afraid that there is going to be a liberal schism where, say, bishops from a very liberal country theologically are going to just trundle off on their own. If they really left the Church, then yeah, that would be a schism, but how likely is that? Those bishops have just come through the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. If they didn’t leave then, why would they leave now? I don’t see that as a practical worry.

Jimmy Akin: The flip side is, some folks from a more progressive position, let’s say, may worry that there are going to be conservatives who gets so fed up, they just leave the Church. Well, as individuals, that happens, just like people unfortunately don’t maintain their Catholic identity in every age of the Church. You have people coming in and out of the Church. I can’t rule out that there’s a possibility that a bishop somewhere might do this, like Lefebvre did back in the 1980s, but I don’t think any of the people who are in the news are plausible candidates for that, the people who are being cited as Francis’s critics.

Cy Kellett: No.

Jimmy Akin: Rather than say, “I’m mad enough to leave,” they’re saying, “I submit, and I respectfully ask this,” and so forth. I don’t see the grounds at the present for an actual formal schism occurring. I understand the press likes to speculate about such things for click-bait reasons, but I don’t see the practical groundwork for that existing at the present time. Now, I could be mistaken. There could be a bishop somewhere who’s just so fed up, either liberal or conservative, he wants to leave the Church, but I don’t know who that would be.

Cy Kellett: Because we’re in a really very pluralistic society, if people individually want to leave, they do that every day. People come and go in the Church every day.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah. By the way, another point about conservatives, and again, this can happen because it did with Lefebvre, but it’s really hard for people who are conservative, if you’re a bishop, to want to break communion with the successor of Peter. Because conservatives are the ones who place an especially high premium on the role of the successor of Peter, and have a much more forceful, robust embrace of the doctrines concerning the role of the Pope and the Church. So it’s really hard for someone from that perspective to formally commit an act of schism.

Cy Kellett: Here’s the thing, though. If there is no breaking up of the Church now, and we stay together, and you think of, “Okay, this is what the Church looks like in Germany, this is what it looks like in Brazil, here’s China, here’s the United States, here’s Mexico,” we all stay together under this Catholic banner, but it looks like such a mess of varying opinions and attitudes and habits. It just looks, I don’t know, like a mess.

Jimmy Akin: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Is there a question there?

Cy Kellett: Well, isn’t that bad?

Jimmy Akin: Yeah, that’s bad.

Cy Kellett: Oh, okay.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah, that’s bad.

Cy Kellett: Okay, but it’s better than schism.

Jimmy Akin: It’s better than schism, or schism, however you want to say it, and one of the historic roles of the Pope, as the successor of Peter and as the ecumenical center of the Church, is to try to do what he can to promote reconciliation among Christians and to help lead people along, accompany them, if you will, and lead them closer to Jesus, and help diminish some of the partisanship that leads to these different problems, but as we said, sounds like the church of Corinth. These divisions have been there since the beginning. It’s part of fallen human nature, and we don’t need to be scared of it, if I can put it that way.

Cy Kellett: Okay. All right. You can put it that way. That makes me somewhat sympathetic to the Pope saying, “I’m not afraid of schism,” then, if he has the same view. Like, this is fallen human nature, we’re all going to work this out together, and we’ll muddle through as a Church. Not just muddle through. I mean, the glory of the Gospel, it continues to be proclaimed all over the world.

Cy Kellett: Jimmy, thank you very, very much, because the word schism, I’ll say it that way, is all the rage. It’s a nice to have a less heated look at what that all means. Thank you.

Jimmy Akin: Thank you.

Cy Kellett: Thank you for joining us here on Catholic Answers Focus. We appreciate it, and we would really appreciate it if you’d give us a like wherever you get this podcast, maybe even a comment somewhere, maybe even a share it with other people. That’s how we grow this podcast. If you’d like to become a member of Radio Club, go to catholicanswerslive.com and put in your email address, and we’ll start sending you free stuff, including a weekly connection to Catholic Answers Focus. We’ll see you next time.

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